I found Andrew Back's semi-rant about Linux on the desktop thought provoking. Back in 2003, in an idle moment, I contemplated starting a business based on helping small-to-medium sized businesses to deploy Linux on the desktop (hereinafter just "Linux"). And a friendly, highly competent, Linux-hugging sys admin guy I know (who shall remain nameless) said that "it's not ready for prime time". It stopped me dead in my tracks. Surely if he didn't think it was ready for prime time then I must be missing something?
There were a few key problems with Linux back then. Usability was an issue. Ease of switching was an issue. Choice was an issue.
So have the last five years made a difference?
Sure they have. Projects such as Ubuntu have a strong focus on usability now, and there have been big improvements as a result. Presumably the underlying code has improved. And yet there has been no great increase in usage.
In the same period, Apple is slowly gnawing into Microsoft's domination in the desktop market (hitting 6% in 2007 according to Wired, up from 3% in 2003). Why?
Also in the same period, an appetite for quality open source products such as Firefox and, to a lesser extent, VLC has developed, but not for Linux. Why?
Contrary to Mr.Back's views, I don't think the lack of device drivers is preventing people from switching to Linux. I don't hear many people saying that they'd switch if only they knew their devices would be supported. This is a red herring. It's something more fundamental than that. The problem is that most people still don't know or like Linux.
People (other than geeks) don't like learning new stuff, especially new computer programs if they can possibly help it. The exception to the rule: they will consider switching to an experience which is obviously more enjoyable or productive, and simple to grasp. Mac OS X is not only all three, but also this can be appreciated at a glance. It sells itself. People are keen to show their friends - both getting pleasure from the reaction. It's viral.
I'm not just talking about eye-candy here. The elements within Mac OS X that are pleasing on the eye have a primary purpose: productivity. Look at Exposé, or the Genie Effect, or dock magnification. They help you find what you're looking for quickly. The fact they look nice too is secondary.
Before this turns into a usability critique of Linux on the desktop, let's get back on track...
Linux has a long way to catch up with Apple and even Microsoft (Ow! Who threw that?) when it comes to overall usability. It would require a group of people to not only take responsibility for the usability of the OS (as the Ubuntu team have done so ably), but also responsibility for the over-arching usability, experience and inter-operability of all the apps that the target group would use. And I don't just mean bundling OpenOffice with your operating system. Case study: iLife. It isn't good enough that there are open source alternatives for iPhoto, or iTunes - if you want people to switch they've got to be better, and not just a little bit.
Of course, Apple's image has contributed to their success. But their recent success didn't run parallel to a change in image, which has remained pretty consistent throughout. That said, the image of Linux is bloody confusing to anyone taking an interest for the first time.
For Linux to break into the mainstream, I think it first needs to find a niche to carve out. And I think that niche is a particular type of business user. The type of business user who only needs an email client and a browser to get their job done. Ubuntu + Firefox (maybe using Google Docs) + Thunderbird (email client) is a solid suite, so start from there, consolidate, and then grow. The people using Linux in the workplace might - just might - make it their first choice at home too.
Let's accept that Linux isn't for everyone and stop calling it a battle. With patience and focus it will gradually become the OS of choice for a growing, vocal group of happy users (other than developers). And who knows where it might go from there?
Incidentally, I think OpenOffice should be treated as a prototype - throw it away and start again, and this time don't copy Microsoft Office 2000. Carve out a niche. Just my $0.02.
Disclaimer: I'm a Mac user and an open source fan. I'd love Linux to be good enough for me to switch to and am keen to support initiatives to improve Linux. I'd happily make the move to Linux if the combined hardware and software was better than Apple. Yes, really.
(Photo from MaxPa's flickrstream)